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Emojis convey much more than just a simple LOL

| Saturday, May 20, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Any time texters hit "send" on a message containing an emoji, recipients get much more than a cute image.

A new study from a Chatham University researcher shows even emojis of objects are capable of conveying emotion, specifically joy.

"Emojis are inherently playful," says Monica Riordan, assistant professor of psychology. "Adding an emoji to a text message makes it more positive."

For her study, "Emojis as Tools for Emotion Work: Communicating Affect in Text Messages," Riordan showed participants text messages with or without different emojis of objects and asked them to indicate how much negative or positive emotion they detected in each. She also varied the number of times an emoji was used per text.

Overall, participants indicated a greater level of positive emotion when emojis were present, with multiple emojis somewhat increasing that feeling. The findings show how non-face emojis can be used as a tool to maintain and enhance relationships, just like their smiley or frowny face counterparts.

"For example, if I text my husband, 'I'm so stressed today,' and he sends back a heart, the emoji conveys a lot more information than if he were to type out a long message," Riordan says.

Emojis of objects are rarely used to convey the item they represent, Riordan says. They are most commonly used at the end of texts to enhance a message. They also are flexible in their meanings, and people often interpret them in different ways, she says.

"Because emojis are limited by what the designers create, we have to adopt non-literal meanings for them," she says.

The meaning of emojis also can vary from relationship to relationship, Riordan says.

"We've negotiated, on a large-scale, that the unicorn emoji stands for something mystical, used by a sender to indicate she doesn't believe something actually happened or actually exists," she says. "But a friend of mine knows that the unicorn emoji makes me laugh and thus uses it to perform her social role as my friend. The unicorn emoji, specifically coming from her, represents friendship."

All emojis can help communicate information usually gained by other means during face-to-face interactions.

"You don't have the gestures, facial expressions or bodily cues that can help show emotion (when texting)," Riordan says. "Emojis are a useful substitute to convey sarcasm or humor or to soften a negative comment.

"For example, if you text someone, 'I tripped and hit my head on the cupboard,' their reaction is going to be, 'Oh my gosh, are you OK?' If you send the same message with a laughing emoji, you're indicating you're not seriously hurt. You're giving extra information."

Emojis also can aid users in deepening and strengthening relationships, Riordan says.

"We use text messaging to communicate with many different types of people: our spouse, coworkers, friends," she says. "With each person, we play a different social role that requires us to act differently. You're not going to send the same type of message to your spouse as you would your coworker or your kids. When people send a text message, they are engaging in an activity to ensure the well-being of that relationship."

Emojis help us perform those actions via text, Riordan says, with important emphasis on the word "perform."

"Think back to when LOL became really popular," she says. "No one is ever laughing out loud when they type that. It's exactly the same with emojis. Usually we aren't laughing with tears each time we use the emoji. But responding to a friend's texted joke with that emoji helps us perform our role as a good friend. In the same way, texting a heart emoji helps us perform as husbands or wives, and texting a trophy to our sales team helps us perform as co-workers.

"Understanding how we maintain relationships in this context can help us make the technology better."

Rachel Weaver is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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